With all the resort spas in the Valley, we have more opportunities to get scrubbed and balanced and massaged into a mellow state of mind than perhaps anywhere else in the country. People fly into town to make a luxury vacation of it, while those of us who live here can just take a few hours off for a little R-and-R. In Phoenix, it's not that hard to be spa-savvy.
Especially in the summer, an afternoon at a tranquil sanctuary is an ideal way to shake off the blahs. You hear enough about seasonal affective disorder making people depressed in the northern cities during the winter, yet somehow the mass crankiness that sets in during a long, hot summer is Phoenix's dirty little secret. Luckily, our other secret is the spa antidote, made even sweeter when some spas throw down a nice discount if you show an Arizona driver's license.
But what to eat when you spend a whole day there? Between sweating in the sauna, taking yoga classes, and working out on the fitness machines — or even if you're just basking by the pool — you're bound to feel a rumble in your stomach. At many spas, that beautifully arranged bowl of apples next to the pitcher of cucumber ice water might be your only option.
However, some of these spots will actually feed you — for a price — between your facial and your full-body massage. Sprouts, at Camelback Inn, is the best one I've found so far. It's a full-service restaurant just past the spa lobby, with plentiful seating and a long counter facing a wall of windows. From there, you can see lush desert landscaping, a glimpse of mountains in the distance, and robe-wrapped spa goers sitting by the pool. The service is welcoming and professional, and the atmosphere is airy and relaxed. Even if you're not getting a treatment, you can still stop by for a bite.
The lunch menu used to give nutritional details on each dish; Sprout has since streamlined it to note whether something's low-carb, low-fat, or low-cholesterol. Now, the emphasis is on organic, seasonal, regional ingredients, in keeping with what seems to be trendy everywhere. That means more provenance on the ingredients, like Redbird Farms organic rosemary chicken breast, or Yuma zucchini with lemon, garlic, and dill.
Along with salads and a few sandwiches, you can order proteins and produce dishes à la carte, to create your own entrée. I happily tucked into a nice piece of fresh, perfectly broiled salmon, with a vegetable chopped salad on the side. The crunchy, colorful salad, tossed with white balsamic vinaigrette, contained a variety of goodies — watercress, romaine, radicchio, tomato, cucumber, radish, red onion, pumpkin seeds, and sprouts. After that, I was torn between an artisan cheese course (un-spa-like, but tempting) or dessert. A miniature Granny Smith apple pie, served warm, with a jumble of fresh berries, turned out to be a tasty finish.
Revive Spa Bistro, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge, is another decent spot to refuel, although in a much more casual atmosphere — some tables inside and a few out on the patio, all with a view of the palm tree- and cabana-lined pool. Despite the name, Revive is definitely more "cafe" than "bistro."
Staffers are friendly, although they also have to wait on people hanging by the pool, so things can take a while. (For some reason, it took almost an hour for the kitchen to make a carrot-celery-apple juice, but at least they took it off my tab.)
Revive Spa Bistro also makes a point of celebrating all things organic, which extends to its all-organic/bio-dynamic wine list and specialty cocktails made with organic rum and vodka. No surprise, the decadence-in-disguise appears on the menu in the form of truffle pommes frites and an American Kobe beef burger cleverly buried among traditional spa noshes like fresh wheat berry salad and a veggie-packed spa bistro wrap. Nope, they don't bother with nutritional info here.
I settled on a caprese salad, which was surprisingly delicious — slices of creamy, milky homemade mozzarella and ripe red and green heirloom tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil. Delish. By the time I'd gotten my carrot juice — after a jaunt to the sauna — I figured I'd call that dessert.
Agave, the Arizona Spa, at the Westin Kierland, dedicates part of its Web site to spa cuisine, although when I showed up with an appetite before my massage appointment, I realized that lunch plays a minor role in the experience here. The staff had to look around for a menu, and there was no actual cafe — just a juice bar with a couple of seats in the lobby.
Accordingly, the Agave Spa menu is minimalistic — yogurt, a fruit cup, agave nectar smoothies, and three different spa cuisine bento boxes. If you decide to nibble on something here, I recommend doing it by the pool rather than indoors. (The resort also has a poolside restaurant called J. Swillings, where you can order things like grilled hot dogs and BLTs.)
My Pacific Rim bento wasn't bad — for a pre-arranged, chilled lunch box. It contained a chewy, nutty mix of black forbidden rice and red Bhutanese rice, which I loved. Chicken breast braised in soy ginger broth, served with crunchy strips of fennel and some Roma tomato, had a pleasant tanginess, while plump grilled shrimp, teamed with sweet peas and sunflower sprouts, were drizzled with miso dressing. If those had been prepared to order, they would've been delicious, but served cold, they were just passable. Figs and oranges tossed in ginger and sweet sake provided a fruity finish.
When I imagine the quintessential spa cafe, the cafe at The Golden Door Spa, at The Boulders, is pretty much it — there's a kind of Southwest New Agey vibe, laid-back service, gorgeous desert scenery just beyond the patio (the resort's namesake boulders are right there), and a healthful menu of salads, soups, and entrees in which the calories, fat, proteins, and carbs are listed right alongside the prices. Interestingly, though, they don't give those details for their smoothies or juice cocktails.
Until I looked at the options here, I had no idea that the spa had its own cookbook, The Golden Door Spa Cooks Light & Easy. So instead of splurging on the pan-seared Hawaiian sea bass with sun-dried tomato quinoa, I decided to try a couple of signature dishes plucked from the cookbook.
Golden Door gazpacho was a substantial rendition of this classic summery soup, although the portion was petite. Sweet, cool yellow tomato gazpacho was laden with diced red and yellow pepper, cucumber, corn, and red onion, with fresh cilantro and toasted almond slivers on top. It tasted as sunny as an Arizona afternoon.
Another signature dish, soba noodle salad, was just as refreshing, a heap of thin buckwheat noodles in a lip-smacking lime-miso dressing, jumbled with crunchy Napa cabbage, tender mixed greens, sprouts, Julienned carrots, scallions, and black sesame seeds. A "salad enhancement" of plump grilled shrimp complemented the Asian flavors.
It was light, flavorful, energizing food. And it beat the heck out of eating apples all day.